Was working on reformatting the Kindle edition of Shadow of Purity to clean up some of the ugliness, and ended up thinking about my buddies Ashriel and Uriel. I’d often toyed with some ideas for a sequel, or at least another story in the same world, and while I was cleaning up one of my favorite portions of the book – I’ll not say which portions, since I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who has yet to read it – I got to thinking about some of those ideas.
Since my other projects are in something of a holding pattern pending the input and work of some other individuals, I started scribbling on this one. It probably needs a better name; Seal of Cain is both painful and generic to me, but it’s what I came up with. (Other suggestions are certainly welcome!) Not like I haven’t junked or altered titles before, even last minute or post-initial-printing.
Figured I would share with you all; hopefully you enjoy.
Burning. Drowning. Both were the same to him as the last traces of his essence burrowed beneath the waves, seeking something, anything, that might end the pain.
His memory was becoming as tattered as the scraps of power that he thought of as “himself,” centuries and millennia vanishing in the unwinding tapestry of agony that was becoming his only existence. His name was the first thing he’d lost, then the reason for his suffering. Now there was only the drive to survive, the knowledge that somewhere below lay the chance.
Past the penetration of light, beyond creatures that those above would consider impossible, to depths that man only dreamt of, his essence burrowed. He sought something, but could no longer say what it was. Only that he would know when he found it. If he found it before even that final drive was extinguished.
There. Something that didn’t belong in the lightless depths. A large casket of the old metals, orichalcum and jade laced with runners of basalt. The work of a master craftsman, never meant to be seen. Etched into the surface in thousands of tongues, most of them long forgotten and evidence of their existence long ago exterminated, a single word written again and again.
He could read it, regardless of the tongue. Somewhere in the tatterdemalion fragments of his mind, he knew that he had written it, once. Had laid it out as both promise and curse.
The casket had been made to keep out prying human fingers, the gnawing teeth and claws of predators and scavengers, the inky tendrils of the blackest depths of ocean. But the seals could not keep out their maker. Even in his diminished state, the old magic knew its master, and opened to him.
Fracture lines struck across the ancient vessel, radiating outward from the center in random patterns and spirals that didn’t dare cross any of the writing. A light, brilliant especially in the blackness of the deep ocean, bled from the cracks. In the light of faith and magic that cascaded over him, he felt his strength returning, his purpose. Reaching towards the casket with a hand that had been nothing but ephemera moments before, he struck at a circular mark in the center.
The fissures pulsed once, the light growing impossibly brilliant, shifting through dozens of hues. Gold to orange to red. Then the light died away and as it faded so too did the shards of the device itself, leaving only its cargo.
A human body. Tall, rippled with muscles that gave the appearance of being hewn from stone rather than sculpted flesh. A shock of red hair that hung to its waist. The skin, dusky and scarred from hundreds of hours spent beneath the sun or before the forge. Nothing about it seemed to imply that it had been submerged since the dawn of history. So sign of corruption or rot marked the body. It appeared to be asleep.
He intended to wake it. Must wake it, if he was to survive.
His mouth came to him, enough sense of self and strength to whisper.
“Cain,” he said. The figure opened its eyes. Deeply blue with rings of red around the irises, sharpening and rolling in their sockets to glare at the one who had awakened him. Even in the lightless depths, he knew Cain could see him. See him and hate him for it.
“Wake, Cain. We have work to do.”
The traces of strength he had regained by opening the seals, by releasing the magic he had placed on them so long ago, was already fading. He could feel his grip on the physical weakening, his reason for awakening the sleeper growing foggier, less important, as his body began to slip into nothingness once more.
There was one chance, revolting as it was to him. He knew it must have been his plan in coming, for why else would he awaken the sleeper? He gathered himself, allowing the few physical features he’d created to dissolve once more, thinning his consciousness into a single cloud, invisible in the darkness.
“Open your mouth, vessel,” he commanded, the weight of ages and divine mandate turning them from mere words into an irresistible song of command. Like the puppet he had been made to be, Cain obeyed.
He darted forward, compressing himself into that open jaw, past teeth and tongue and gullet, fighting the urge to pull away, to recoil in terror and disgust. Portions of himself drew back and plunged into Cain’s eyes and ears, rejoining his main mass once they had burrowed within the meat he now claimed as his own.
Something was not as he had thought it would be. It was not like changing clothes, as some of his lessers had told him. It was not merely a tool, a thing to use and abuse as he saw fit. It was him. Sensations, far stronger than anything he had ever felt, began to assault them. And something else as well.
“What are you doing to me?” He heard it with the ears he had claimed as his own, spoke it with the tongue he had thought would be his, but it was not his doing. Some scrap of the vessel’s self remained, and dared resist.
He channeled his strength throughout the rest of the puppet, following networks of nerve endings and ducts of blood vessels throughout, seeking to scour away the traces of this foreign presence. Still it resisted. The body, seemingly without his command, began to swim upward. He tried to command it, tried to order it to cease and obey as he had ordered it to open its mouth, but it would not.
“You cannot kill Cain,” the body said to him. “nor even command him. Not fully.”
He felt panic tinging his emotions, for the first time considering the possibility that he was now trapped, forced to abide in a body not his own, just as he had planned for Cain. The panic granted him a small edge, and one of Cain’s arms ceased its stroking, throwing the body off course for a moment. The body struggled, finally reasserting control and resuming its placid movement, but he was emboldened; he could exercise control. To a point. And once he was strong again…
“You are strong, spirit,” the body said. “But I am strong as well.”
Above them, he could see the first traces of light. The surface was near. The sun and skies and world beyond that waited. For both of them.
“We have much to learn from one another, I think,” he said to himself. He was beginning to lose the ability to tell who was speaking to who. In his mind, the voices of the meat and the spirit that animated it were becoming one. Their urges and desires were blending, lapping at each others edges like streams that had been allowed to meet after a freak storm.
He – they – broke the surface, droplets of salt water flying from that red mane as he threw his head back and drew breath for the first time in millennia. They glared into the harsh eye of the sun, the irises of their shared body rapidly cycling from blue to gold and back again, but always with that ring of crimson at the edge, as though stained by blood.
As that first breath screamed within his lungs, stretching his chest and cracking his ribs, Cain released it with a single word, laced with layers of sound inaudible to most living beings and filled with untold ages of hatred, despair and a twisted longing. It was a lover’s caress, an angry father’s slap, velvet against flesh, nails against bone.
“Ashriel,” Cain whispered.
He began to swim for the shore.